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In 1924 André Breton defined Surrealism as "Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one expresses, either verbally, in writing, or in any other medium, the actual functioning of thought. The dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason and outside all moral and aesthetic concerns..." It is, however, more challenging to apply this definition to the world of plastic arts.
This is why Surrealism in painting is expressed in different ways without every following the definition given by Breton to the letter. Inspired by the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico and Freudian psychoanalysis, the great Surrealist artists, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Francis Picabia, René Magritte, Joan Miro and Yves Tanguy, all took a different approach and interpretation of what Surrealism paintings meant to them. Interpreting dreams, using automatic movements and distorting the perception of reality, they used their inventiveness to create a unique plastic language.
Salvador Dali, for example, invented a technique known as "paranoia-criticism" (a technique inspired by Lacan), recreating on canvas his dreams and fantasies after analysis and reflection. His Surrealism paintings, such as Soft Construction with Boiled Beans, The Persistence of Memory and The Enigma of My Desire, are organized according to the secret, coded language of his own creation.
Others, such as René Magritte, took a completely different approach, seeking to stimulate our perception of reality. Surrealism artworks like The Treachery of Images and The Key to Dreams are designed to disturb the viewer, who is faced with visual contradictions (such as a train emerging from a chimney) and forced to put into perspective their perception of the world. To do this, Magritte played on the referent and referee, creating surprising visual word plays.
After World War I, many intellectuals were keen to escape the violence and terror of reality. André Breton, who had completed his military service in a psychiatric hospital during the war, was confronted with soldiers who, returning from the front line, had developed all sorts of psychiatric disorders.
Fascinated by a number of his patients, who had created an imaginary world in which to seek refuge and heal from the violence of the front line, André Breton became increasingly interested in the powers of the mind and more specifically the writings of Sigmund Freud.
The unconscious, as described by Freud, represented for the great Surrealist artists André Breton, Paul Eluard and Philippe Soupault, a mental space in which anything was possible. Through numerous means, they sought to enter into contact with it, using all sorts of processes and drugs. They were interested in exploring this mental space stripped of all control of the mind. A space in which creation was found in its purest form. A space beyond reality, the place of the surreal. And so Surrealism was born.